Irit Lillian is one of those ambassadors who can never sit still. While she is not engaged in the many activities related to the promotion of Israel in Bulgaria, she is actively involved with a number of humanitarian projects in this country.
And when she is doing neither, she likes to travel. In fact, for the three years she has been in Bulgaria there is hardly a place she has not been to, often several times over. Irit is simply a perfect guide to Bulgaria – and not only for Israelis but for anyone with a deeper interest in this country and its people. Our imaginary tour of Bulgaria starts, naturally, in the capital, Sofia.
I like Sofia's eclectic character, the fact that it develops to be a colourful city with contemporary art and creation. I like its hidden gems, the growing food scene that makes me break my diet, but mostly I like the fact that the Vitosha Mountain pops up into my sight in its full glory.
One of the places I'd strongly recommend is the Sofia Synagogue and its vicinity. The synagogue itself is a beautiful example of architecture and decoration at the dawn of the 20th century. It was inaugurated in 1909 and is a constant reminder of the vibrant Jewish community in Bulgaria before the Second World War. The building, designed by the Austrian architect Grunanger, is the largest in the Balkans and one of the biggest in Europe. It has a pleasant mixture of different styles. For me, not a very practicing Jew, it is a favourite meeting place with the members of the Jewish community. The fact it is so close to the beautiful mosque and to the churches around gives it a special flavour and lets you wonder what tolerance looked like many decades ago.
Shishman Street – this street is my treat! I love strolling in it though the sidewalks need urgent repairs. All kinds of small boutiques, coffee shops, the "underground" kiosks, the galleries are all so welcoming even though the prices are a bit on the high side. On the corner with Graf Ignatiev Street there is a lovely garden surrounding Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church, and nearby there are always old ladies selling all kinds of cute little things from their villages: flowers, mushrooms in season, jars of honey or of home made Lyutenitsa.
However, my little "shrine" in Shishman Street is Gelateria Naturale – the best ice cream shop in Sofia! Fresh ice cream with seasonal flavours… the only question is how to order a four flavours cup without looking too piggy.
Boyana Church is a an UNESCO world heritage site, so many tourists visit it. It is very small and you cannot get in by yourself. You might even get stuck in a queue of people waiting to go inside. Still, after so many visits I always like to go back there again. The 12th century frescos are amazing. They are so vivid, the characters have very expressive features. Sitting outside, looking at the giant Sequoia trees, listening to the birds, watching the tourists who just go in and out, and wondering if anyone was doing the same thing 800 years ago.
What about outside Sofia?
Plovdiv. With all my love to Sofia, Plovdiv is the place for me. It has beautiful archaeological sites, a lovely pedestrian zone (which is practically the ancient stadium), the Kapana district with all its charm, my favourite contemporary art gallery (Sariev), the dance festival, the night of galleries and museums, the Old Town with so many antique shops etc. But the jewel in the crown is yet to come. It is the Bishop's Basilica with its many layers of fantastic mosaics. It is a paradise for archaeologists right now, but next year when it will be open to the public – do not miss it (for the time being, the Small Basilica is a nice appetiser).
The Rhodope. This mountain range is definitely one of the most beautiful regions in Bulgaria. The nature is breathtaking! The different caves (although in some cases too touristy), the mountains, the small villages where time has stopped. Empty villages with only a decorated church to remind that once people lived there, lovely hiking trails leading to small lakes. The food is delicious, fresh, and as a great tea lover I should warmly recommend the herbal tea made of local herbs and flowers.
Buzludzha. This is a place filled with history, but what makes it so fascinating is the incredible building at the top. This is the former House Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party, a strange looking "flying saucer" that really mesmerises. It is one of the best examples of Communist architecture in Bulgaria in the 1970’s and at the same time the best example of how complicated it is for the country to live with its past. It is deserted, destroyed, one cannot see the beautiful mosaics inside, but it is a heaven for graffiti lovers, dreamers and romantic people, not recommended though for nostalgic ones.
Imagine you had friends from Israel coming over to visit. What would you recommend to them?
Combine any visit with a journey out of the beaten track. Always have a taste of nature. In Israel, we have no real seasons but for a short rainy "winter" and a very long summer. Every visitor who comes from Israel appreciates the characteristics of the four seasons, the flowers and smells of spring, the warmth of summer with so many opportunities to chill out, autumn stepping in gently with its magnificent colours and… the snow in winter. For us at least it is still exciting.
The beauty of the Bulgarian nature and the atmosphere out of the cities is so different and so relaxing – a remedy for anyone coming from the Middle East.
And what would you advise them to be careful about?
The service in restaurants. Well, let’s say it is not Bulgaria’s forte. In so many cases, while the food is fresh and delicious the experience is ruined when your waiter treats you like a nuisance. In so many places they expect tourists to speak Bulgarian, to be acquainted with names of dishes and…to eat tepid soup. Israelis who are usually pretty easy-going can take it in, but it would be difficult for them to have it all without a smile.
Food and drinks – do not yield to Rakiya! Yogurt is my top favourite, specially a fresh one with honey and fruit (in summer). It is just delicious! Well, Banitsa and Lyutenitsa too…
Jewish tourists should not miss the synagogue in Sofia. But it would be good to travel in the footsteps of the Jewish presence in Bulgaria from the Roman times till today: visit the beautiful mosaic floor of the Roman synagogue (now in the museum of Plovdiv), visit the Arie house in Samokov (and be perplexed to see the Jewish tombstones inlayed in the floor outside the mosque), visit the remains of the most beautiful synagogue in Vidin, visit one of the old cemeteries – so badly kept – and see the 16th century tombstones announcing in the most poetic manner who were the deceased.
Last but not least, I will ask Jewish tourists, but not only, to visit the Salvation Monument in Sofia, which commemorates the rescue of 50,000 members of the Jewish community of Bulgaria and the deportation of the Jews of Thrace, Macedonia and Pirot during the Second World War. A small token of appreciation of a very remarkable deed of the Bulgarians, so rarely told.